Visions of cider, wine
Valley woman looks to turn hobby into business
YOUNGSTOWN — Hannah Ferguson embodies that old saying, “do what you love … “
It’s apparent in the way she talks about the business she’s started and how she walks in the space that will become D.O.P.E. Cider House & Winery — about 1,300 square feet of what’s really now storage and office space she intends to transform into a production facility and tasting room just south of downtown.
She envisions the cider house and winery having that coffeehouse-type vibe — small, intimate and full of charm.
“It’s going to be small, quaint, but for me starting out, it’s the perfect size, especially the fact the production space is right here,” said Ferguson, 38, believed to be only black female brewer in the state.
Ferguson is leasing the space from Penguin City Brewing Co., which bought the former Republic warehouse at 460 E. Federal St. in December to relocate its production line from Paladin Brewing in Austintown and open a taproom / restaurant and event center.
Ferguson’s space is connected to the warehouse.
Penguin City reached out to Ferguson shortly after acquiring the property after a mutual friend told co-owner Aspasia Lyras-Bernacki it might be worthwhile to contact Ferguson, who was working as assistant brewer at Modern Methods Brewing Company in Warren, but wanted to do more.
“When I came here, she (Lyras-Bernacki) was like, ‘come over here, let me show you this,'” Ferguson said. “I thought I was getting a private tour, just like looking at everything and she was like, ‘do you see yourself in this spot?’ And I was like, ‘well you know what, I can see that.'”
When the cider house opens, Ferguson plans to have eight ciders on tap and four varieties of wine.
THE DEAL SEALED
Penguin City and Ferguson announced the arrangement in late February. Now Ferguson is busy with working with vendors for equipment to brew cider and in the process of getting the needed state and federal approvals.
She’s also worked with an architect to hone the interior taste room, which will have a 10-seat bar and other seating. She also envisions an outdoor patio space.
“I already have a few things. As a home winemaker, I’ve accumulated a lot of stuff over the years; it’s just upgrading a few things to produce on a large scale,” she said.
Ferguson admits she’s eager, but knows it’s waiting game on the state and federal governments. Still, the goal is to open in September alongside Penguin City.
On a recent day there, the space that’s dedicated to production was full of plastic barrels, other equipment and a towmotor outfitted with a device that appears perfect to lift kegs. What’s planned to be the taste room didn’t at all resemble what it will become.
That’s why she’s documenting the transformation with before and after photos, an endeavor she plans to begin in earnest really when construction work begins. She said she intends to post the work on her social media.
“This has been huge. I have people just reaching out to me that I didn’t even know, just requesting me and sending me messages just saying they are proud,” Ferguson said. “I’m like wow, so that love and support I am getting from people who I don’t know is just amazing, so I definitely see the impact and definitely want to show people the progress.”
Penguin City will help Ferguson with branding and distribution in the Mahoning Valley. The brewing company’s space is large enough to accommodate Ferguson if she begins to outgrow her location.
Ferguson, who grew up on the South Side of Youngstown, was introduced to home wine making in 2013 by relatives who dabbled in it. It started as just “a fun hobby,” she said, but grew into something more, quickly, and led to her participating in the WE Launch and WE Create programs at the Youngstown Business Incubator.
WE Launch is a 10-week program that teaches women the fundamentals of launching their products / services into the marketplace and WE Create is another multiple week program that gives women the tools and information to start a business plan.
Her natural curiosity gave way to her wanting to know more about craft beers, having been a craft beer enthusiast for a while. That ultimately led to the opportunity to work at Modern Methods about four years ago.
She said she reached out wanting to learn. Modern Methods was receptive, and invited her to a couple of brew days. When the assistant brewer job opened, she said, Modern Methods called.
“That’s kind of how that pretty much transpired, me helping and wanting to learn,” she said.
She started D.O.P.E. Brands — Dwelling On Positive Energy — in 2017. Then, she would put on events like open mic nights, poetry nights, art shows to “do something that was different for Youngstown” for people tired of the bar scene.
“Dope is a word that was used in the ’80s and then it went away and it started to come back. I use that a lot, I just want it to be dope, I want this event to be dope and then I wanted it to have a meaning not just with that,” she said.
Her brother, who is great with words, she said, defined the acronym in minutes — Dwelling On Positive Energy.
She collaborated with Sundog Cellars in July 2020 with D.O.P.E Cider, a blend of strawberry, coconut and pineapple that’s periodically on tap at Sundog and Homestead restaurant in Columbiana.
Ten percent of sales goes to D.O.P.E. Brands LLC.
BREAKING NEW GROUND
It’s believed Ferguson is the only black female brewer in Ohio. And when the cider house and winery opens, she’ll be the first black woman to own one.
The Ohio Craft Brewers Association knows of no other brewer who is a black woman, nor has Ferguson known any from being in the business. It’s a role she takes on proudly and one she believes can influence others to get involved, if not in brewing than other industries not highly populated by women or people of color.
“I think it’s, to me, another break through in the industry, especially this industry that is white male dominated, and then also just showing other women and people of color, we can do this, too,” Ferguson said. “If this is truly what we want do, we can do it.”
Penguin City closed on the 30,000-square-foot space at the end of 2020 for $575,000. The company plans to invest millions to ready the space for opening. The space is divided into two levels — on the upper level will be production and the lower level, the restaurant / tap room. When the renovation is complete, the divider will be a glass wall.
Also on the upper level will be an event center for weddings and events of that ilk. It’s likely an operator will be brought on to run the restaurant.
“I’ve always drove past this building. I’ve always known about it. I’ve had people tell me when we started, just like in conversation, that you need to be here … It’s kind of strange that it ended up that we got it,” Lyras-Bernacki said. “There are parts of me that I feel overwhelmed and there are parts of me that I’m just ready. It just makes sense.”
In April, Penguin City will be distributed in seven counties in western Pennsylvania.